Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Every once in a while, I hear a song that touches my heart enough for me to know it will never leave my mind. And coming from someone who can hardly remember what she had for breakfast earlier in the day, this means a lot. About a month ago, in the midst of a very dark time in my life, I came across the most wonderful, hidden gem my ears have ever heard: “Achilles Come Down” by Gang of Youths. This is my analysis of the song’s lyrics and musical depth.
First, the Australian indie-rock band’s lead vocalist, David Le'aupepe, pays a beautiful tribute to Homer’s The Iliad and Achilles’ tragic story, introducing a fictional scenario where the Greek hero is about to take his own life.
Achilles, come down, won’t you
Get up off,
Get up off the roof?
I found this first verse to be particularly stunning. As anyone who is familiar with Greek mythology already knows, Achilles is a warrior. This juxtaposition of mental “weakness” in someone with who is literally supposed to be god-like in physical strength is meant to create some cognitive dissonance. Was his “Achilles’ heel” more than just a soft spot on the bottom of his foot? Was it perhaps something far more sinister beyond what Homer made clear to us?
In addition to the lyrical confusion we are meant to feel at the start of the song, a hauntingly frantic cello solo behind Le’aupepe’s silky yet shaky voice expresses the anxiety that the speaker, and Achilles himself, must feel in the moment during which this song takes place. The speaker, whose identity we do not know for certain (although I will share my speculations later in this article) goes on to plead with his friend to consider those who love him dearly and, even more importantly, consider the future that lies ahead of him.
You're scaring us
And all of us
Some of us love you
Achilles, it's not much but there's proof
You crazy-assed cosmonaut
Remember your virtue
Redemption lies plainly in truth
The speaker knows that as a Greek, only two things will truly get through to his dear friend, Achilles: logic and morality. He knows it is not enough to simply appeal to his emotions, so he tells him, “there’s proof.” He asks him to think about all of the perils he has faced, jokingly referring to him as a “crazy-assed cosmonaut” to try and lighten the mood. His point? After slaying monster after monster after monster, are you really willing to be your own demise? After you’ve made it this far?
He further cites that the gods Achilles holds close are against suicide and that the only way he will feel whole again is to seek truth in the middle of the darkness he feels entrapped in.
I assume, having read The Iliad, that this despondence Achilles is experiencing comes on so suddenly as a result of losing his closest companion (and perhaps lover), Patroclus. I originally thought the ghost of Patroclus was the speaker due to the lyrics:
The self is not so weightless
Nor whole and unbroken
Remember the pact of our youth
However, if this was the case, then why would he then start threatening to jump with Achilles? He is already dead—the entire reason, I believe, that Achilles is so willing to throw his life away.
Where you go
So jump and I'm jumping
Since there is no me without you
Whoever this speaker is, his boundless devotion to Achilles is very clear. It is also clear that this devotion is mutual, as the speaker knows that this threat to join Achilles in his suicide would affect him more deeply than anything else.
After this stern warning, the speaker turns to more gentle words of comfort for his suffering friend:
Loathe the way they light candles in Rome
But love the sweet air of the votives
Hurt and grieve but don't suffer alone
Engage with the pain as a motive
He tells him that it is okay to feel angry and to disregard the hyper-religious hypocrites, who live lavishly without a single discomfort yet ask him to simply light a candle and move on. But he begs Achilles to stay and find small joys in the throes of his sorrow, to “love the sweet air of the votives.” He begs him to find purpose in his pain, and “engage with the pain as a motive,” like Sisyphus, the Greek king who was damned to push a humongous boulder up a hill for all of eternity but never completely lost faith in himself.
After reading more about each of Gang of Youths’ members, it became very clear to me who the speaker of this song is, especially once the hook began. It is the singer, Le'aupepe himself.
Today of all days
How the most dangerous thing is to love
How you will heal and you'll rise above
Le'aupepe tells Achilles, perhaps while reading The Iliad, that on the day of his beloved Patroclus’ death, now and on its every anniversary, that he must not let his love become “dangerous.” Patroclus would not have wanted that; he would have wanted him to use it to heal. And Le'aupepe can give this advice from personal experience with mortality and suicidal ideation: he had to watch his ex-wife fight a violent battle with cancer as a boy of only eighteen, a battle that corroded their marriage.
In another of his songs entitled “Magnolia,” Le'aupepe recalls “June 3rd” as the date that he attempted suicide and his fellow band members, along with a law enforcement officer, had to talk him down from a more metaphorical roof—actually a train track—as he drunkenly stumbled close to the edge. He recalls his past love being one source of his becoming such a danger to himself, and I believe that this experience is what leads him to feel such a strong sympathy for Achilles.
I have my own “June 3rd”—January 7th. It is for this reason that I feel so strongly that no one that I love should experience the level of pain and hopelessness I did that day. I know exactly why Le'aupepe is so desperate in his attempts to stop Achilles from jumping, though I no longer feel he is referencing Achilles in a singular way.
While I, as an avid reader, acknowledge the bonds we can form with fictional people, I do not feel that such a bond alone would be enough for Le'aupepe to himself threaten suicide. I feel Achilles, to him, represents someone he knows personally. I think he catches himself, in mentioning “the pact of our youth,” in exactly what he is trying to persuade Achilles to see fault in: that is, “how the most dangerous thing is to love.” This is why his advice becomes more tender in the hook and he shifts gears to assure Achilles, or more likely a real-life friend of his, “you will heal and you’ll rise above.”
During the second half of this song, the speaker changes: it is now Achilles’ intrusive thoughts that are given voice to.
You are absent of cause
No audience could ever want you
You crave the applause
Yet hate the attention
Then miss it, your act is a ruse
It is empty, Achilles
So end it all now
It's a pointless resistance
I, and millions of others, have received these same damaging words. Sometimes from myself, and sometimes from other people. I understand the power struggle, the crescendos and decrescendos in this song, of believing these deadly words. Then finding comfort in the kinder words of a friend, and then believing the harmful ones once more.
Le'aupepe aims to portray healing in a non-linear way, the way that it actually happens. This is clear through both the musical ups and downs in the song, as well as in the back-and-forth dialogue between Achilles’ intrusive thoughts and Le'aupepe’s panic-stricken words of love and compassion.
Just put down the bottle
Don't listen to what you've consumed
It's chaos, confusion
And wholly unworthy
Of feeding and it's wholly untrue
As the song nears its end, these two voices begin to interrupt each other, and the overwhelming noise it creates, while it might sound unpleasant to the listener, is meant to sound that way.
You want the acclaim
The mother of mothers (it's not worth it Achilles)
More poignant than fame
Or the taste of another (don't listen Achilles)
But be real and just jump
You dense motherfucker (you're worth more, Achilles)
You will not be more
Than a rat in the gutter (so much more than a rat)
You want my opinion (no one asked your opinion)
My opinion you've got
You asked for my counsel (no one asked for your thoughts)
I gave you my thoughts
While it first appears, due to the volume of these intrusive thoughts, that they will win against Le'aupepe’s, again, desperate pleas that Achilles choose life, Le'aupepe is given the final say. After this intense internal struggle Achilles’ must deal with as he hears both voices come together in unison to assure him, for better and for worse, “I’m talking to you,” the music becomes quieter and Le'aupepe is now the only voice he can hear.
Achilles come down,
Achilles come down,
Throw yourself into the unknown
With pace and a fury defiant
Clothe yourself in beauty untold
And see life as a means to a triumph
He encourages his friend to “throw yourself into the unknown,” rather than throwing himself into an early, unnatural grave. The final lyric of this song lets us know that Achilles does, in fact, come down.
Ah, it's more courageous to overcome
Le'aupepe is incredibly relieved that his friend has decided to step down from the roof. In this song, he reimagines the story of Achilles with a much less tragic end than Homer’s. The frantic cello I mentioned earlier becomes a soft, celebratory violin outro, and I can picture some Greek wartime friend of Achilles embracing his sobbing friend and praising his “courageous” decision “to overcome.” I can picture Le'aupepe, in a more modern setting, embracing his own troubled friend. And I can picture being embraced by my own loved ones on January 7th when I, too, chose to overcome the monsters that attempted to destroy my life.
The point of this work of art by Gang of Youths is to show us that while it may feel as though the June 3rds and January 7ths in our lives will drag on endlessly, there is hope and we are never alone. If we ever find ourselves on the roof like Achilles, it is so important that we reach out to someone who will help us to silence the voices in our heads telling us that we do not deserve to live, and to live happily. Because we do. Everyone does. And I know if I am ever in need of a compassionate voice to remind me of this, I can put my earbuds in and listen to Le'aupepe’s.